Matt Hodgson, Andrew Forrest and keeping rugby relevant in WA

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Bitterness. Betrayal. Disgust.

They're emotions you wouldn't dare begrudge Western Force great Matt Hodgson after he and the rest of the now defunct Super Rugby franchise were taken to hell and back in 2017.

After governing body SANZAAR announced the competition would be stripped back to 15 teams, Rugby Australia, then known as the Australian Rugby Union, revealed it would cut either the Force or Melbourne Rebels to meet their requirements for the revised format.

Hodgson quickly became the face of the Force's fight for survival, the veteran flanker delivering countless emotional pleas to the ARU to not only keep the WA franchise but also keep Australian rugby at its full Super Rugby complement.

The battle eventually went to the courts before a senate hearing also laid bare what had transpired behind closed doors at Rugby Australia HQ. In the end, the Rebels were given the green light to keep their place in Super Rugby while the Force, and more than 35 contracted players, were banished to professional obscurity.

The decision was particularly brutal for Hodgson, who along with Pek Cowan were the only two foundation players left at the club, one of the few who'd headed over from the east coast, and had begun to raise a family as he committed his life to Western Australia. He had every reason to walk away from rugby, after the game had hurt him so badly.

It is not the case.

Does he feel a lighter load now 2017 is behind him?

"No, I don't, it's probably a bigger load," Hodgson tells ESPN when asked whether he's a different man, his two boys playing nearby in a Perth park. "There's so much expectation of trying to deliver something for the people of WA. I think as we come closer to the start of the Super Rugby season we're going to feel a big void, and it's going to be a bit of an empty space.

"So it's sort of my job and a team of us together to try and get something up and running to be able to watch rugby and watch rugby in WA. I know the 'Sea of Blue' [the Force supporters] are starting to get a bit itchy now as we come closer to the beginning of what would have been another season for the Force, and when that first game comes it's going to be an empty feeling."

Hodgson hung up the boots when the Force signed off their final Super Rugby season with a crushing 41-10 over NSW Waratahs, a win that saw them finish second in the Australian conference, but his work was really only just beginning. For the man who at that same game had described the Force as the "best thing Western Australia had going", mining magnate Andrew Forrest, was already working to ensure Australia's fourth Super Rugby franchise would not be wiped from the map completely.

With the Force removed from Super Rugby, Forrest has set about creating his own Indo-Pacific Rugby competition with Hodgson quickly becoming his right-hand man. Gone are the boots and mouthguard, on are the suit and tie as the 11-Test Wallabies back-rower rides shotgun to Forrest and the goal of ensuring rugby's survival in the west.

"It's great, it's definitely different," Hodgson says of life on the road with Forrest. "I thought when I retired from football I'd stop the travelling because it does take it out of you and it is hard on your family. Now having two kids to be away for so long; the special thing now is you're actually delivering for them and giving them an opportunity of doing what I did. I was lucky enough to [have] 17 years in professional sport and playing rugby, the joy, the places I got [to travel] and the people I got to meet were pretty special.

"So going away now and seeing it from the other side is definitely different; meeting different people and talking about different things. But the more people I see around sport and rugby, a lot of people have the same goal and they just want rugby to be successful again; it's not only WA that's hurting, it's the whole of Australia hurting, that's the story I'm hearing."

Hodgson says he and Forrest are closing in on some major announcements for their Indo-Pacific competition as they strive to deliver some rugby content for West Australians.

There are those who question the billionaire's planning, pointing to a lack of space in the rugby calendar and asking who exactly will contest the competition and how it will generate interest in an already saturated Australian sports market.

But Hodgson is adamant the competition can and will be a success, such is the drive and commitment of Forrest -- the same man who offered the ARU $Aus50 million to retain the Force's Super Rugby licence.

"Nearly every second email I get from Andrew has M.I.H. at the bottom of it, and I kept asking what it meant and then, after a while, he actually told me it just says 'make it happen'," Hodgson tells ESPN. "So everything he says, he wants it to happen; he puts some pretty hefty goals on us and, as you see, it's been a tough battle.

"But I think we're actually making progress now and moving forward. Anything I ask or I dreamed of as a kid, he says 'let's make it happen'. The best thing about Andrew is he's hands-on and he really wants this to happen but he gives you enough rope to actually [shape] the way you think rugby should look in Western Australia."

Hodgson also likes what he sees in new Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle, whom he met in Perth recently.

"I see positive things for Australian rugby under her leadership, which is quite exciting," he says. "She brings something different that Australian rugby hasn't seen for a while, and that's pretty exciting.

"She's going to take a few weeks or a month or so to actually just absorb everything of what's on, not only in Western Australia but in rugby in general, and then I think she'll start making some decisions for the betterment of the game."

While Hodgson has moved on from the challenges of 2017, it's evident there is a spot deep within him that still can't completely reconcile the fashion in which his club was dismissed.

And what of Super Rugby? Can he bring himself to watch the action when the Australian conference gets underway on Friday -- sans Force?

"I probably won't be as excited by it," Hodgson says. "I'm saying if it's on I'll probably watch it, but I won't have that same excitement or that same feeling of watching as I would have [if it] had been the Western Force playing in it; that's probably what's going to hurt the most.

"It would have been a time now I could have sat back and reflected on it, actually sat in the ground or watched it on TV and saying that I was part of that. That's a big void that's going to be hard to fulfil."

And it's that "void" he will continue to look to fill in the coming months -- not just for the people of WA or an Australian rugby community he says is hurting across the country, but particularly for those two boys still running riot around the park.

"It was pretty funny, they [Hodgson's boys] started asking what I do for a job now that I'm not going to training," he says. "I think my wife, Jo, summed it up, she said: 'Daddy used to play for the Force, now he's trying to save the Force'. So just listening to that and going down to training for Under-6s at our local club, seeing how much enjoyment there is for the game there, and I reckon that's emulated in every club in WA, is the reason why I do it.

"So personally and probably selfishly, it's for my two young boys. But in saying that, every step or path I will listen to what people want and probably try to make it so I can see my kids, or someone of their age, in 10-20 years actually pulling on the Western Force jersey in a professional outfit and playing professional rugby. And if that is taking over soccer, taking over other sports and becoming the No.1 sport in WA, that's exciting."